A quick TR about my visit to the country of Timor-Leste from Bali on Merpati.
Within my company I am always looking for new and interesting jobs and since they are few and far between you sometimes have to make them happen yourself. One of the things I like is to work for IGOs or NGOs and preferably directly within the developing countries themselves. This time a friend of mine pointed out there were some interesting opportunities in Timor-Leste and since I was already in the neighbourhood I convinced our management to let me go check it out. I would be working together with the World Food Programme to investigate how to improve supply chain management for local rice distribution. It is always great to visit locations like this For one because you can actually see what is going on and secondly because the people working in this areas (World Bank, UN, etc) are always very entertaining, full of stories and well educated.
It was kinda difficult to buy the ticket. My contacts in Dili had informed me that the standard rate was US$ 350 for a return. No matter what travel agency I contacted they all came back with strange quotes varying from $451 to $700. Merpati on Bali itself wanted $551 to begin with and they also told me I had to pay in cash because they did not accept credit cards. Yeah, right. I eventually had my contacts in Dili book me the ticket there and when I picked it up at DPS I could (of course) pay with a credit card. The ticket itself was rather a flimsy printout which was hardly readable, but at least it was now mine.
I had another 10 days or so on Bali before I had to leave for Dili. I enjoyed myself in Ubud and Sanur. The last bit was especially nice since I stayed at the Hyatt there for the umpteenth time and since I am now a Diamond member of their reward programme I was upgraded to the Regency Suite. Totally unexpected and extremely pleasant. Best suite I stayed in ever.
The weather on Bali was a bit weird for the time of year. Normally in September the weather is perfectly fine with plenty of sunshine and maybe an occasional burst of rain. This time however the day started with rain, cleared up at 9, stayed clear till about 3 or 4 PM than became overcast and at night it started raining again. They told me it had been like that all summer.
Seat 11E (economy)
Dep: 10:25 (actual 11:55)
Arr: 13:15 (actual 14:45)
I arrived at the airport about 90 minutes before my flight was planned to leave since I had heard that Merpati still has to achieve one on time departure in its entire existence. This time would be no exception. Check in went rather smoothly. They don't do seat assignments by computer but by sticker sheets. I asked for an exit seat and the lady gave me 11E. I told her that this wasn't an extra legroom seat (like I requested) but that seat 12F (still on the sticker sheet) was. She remained adamant that 11E was an exit seat and therefore had extra legroom. I wasn't in the mood to argue given that it was only a 100 minute flight.
I hurried upstairs expecting a line where you have to pay departure tax and at passport control but there was nobody there at all. I was airside in 3 minutes. This meant a 60 minute wait plus whatever delay and without a lounge. I bought some whisky as a present for my hosts and headed to gate 9, the bus gate to see how we were doing.
The Merpati people kept claiming that the flight would be on time until 30 minutes before departure when they finally admitted that the plane was not even at the airport yet. At least one hour delay. No sooner had I settled myself in a restaurant to enjoy a nice cup of tea and a movie or the announcer called for my flight and that it was now boarding. What that meant (or so I found out later) is that you can pass security into the departure lounge where they let us wait for another hour before boarding really started. So far Merpati was living up to my expectations. At least it gave me some time to provide you with an impression of the traffic at DPS.
The flight was absolutely 100% booked. It must be a profitable route for Merpati. I squeezed into my seat and hoped for the best. Merpati does not have the best rep in the world. Seat pitch was ridiculous but I would be ok. I was going to a beautiful and unique place.
We soon went for our taxi to the end of the runway and took off almost immediately.
I tried to settle in as best as I could for the flight. It wasn't easy. The in-flight magazine did not provide much distraction either.
The most surprising part of the flight was the catering. It was absolutely excellent. They served drinks very quickly and we got a box of food that contained some of the best chow I have eaten on many an airline lately, even including business and first. BA: Merpati's Y class catering is better than your J food!
It may not look much, but it was delicious. I watched two episodes of Weeds on my iPod before we landed at the very bumpy runway of Dili airport. My friend - who used to run the airport - told me that one time the flight had a burst tire on landing and the pilot simply took off with the tire still flat since they could not fix it there anyway. It made for an even bumpier takeoff he told me. We disembarked rather quickly but I needed a visa on arrival and that takes a while. There was a line of about 15 people in front of me and that took 30 to 40 minutes. Meanwhile all the expats and UN staffers had formed lines in front of the passport check. We had to follow suit and in total it took about 60 to 80 minutes to clear one 737. Bit much...
Timor-Leste itself was fantastic. Although a lot of bad things happened there not so long ago it feels like Bali avant la letre. Pure, beautiful and nice people. At least in the more 'touristy' parts of Dili. In the districts you can see why this place is also a powder keg. It was very rewarding to do some useful stuff here and I enjoyed seeing how much progress WFP had already made in rice distribution. I will limit myself to some visual impressions of the island though.
Having a beer
Our local transport
Rice, rice and more rice
A lot of beauty too
The people we do it for
After a very rewarding and productive week it was time for me to leave. I certainly hope (and expect) to be back!
Seat 7D (economy)
Arr: 14:45 (actual 14:30)
Yes, you have seen it correctly. This was actually the first Merpati flight ever to leave on time and even arrive early.
The morning of my departure I still had quite a busy schedule. Some of my contacts had warned me that even though DIL hardly has any flights you still need to be there 2 hours before departure or they offload you. Given the load factor on the inbound I did not want to take any risks. My worries were unfounded however. I was there in plenty of time. No exit seats left anymore so I settled for 7D. I forgot to fill out my departure card as well as pay the $10 departure tax so I must have looked very stupid to the customs official. After taking care of everything I went through security to the departure lounge. For future reference: don't! Leave that to the last possible minute. In the departure lounge you can buy tax free alcohol but that is it. You can't even buy a can of coke...
This being Timor-Leste you can see some stuff you won't see elsewhere.
The departure lounge soon filled up. A surprised roar went through the place when the Merpati flight landed on time. Thank goodness we would not have to spend hours and hours here, which is not uncommon.
It is out there, somewhere...
Boarding started about 40 minutes after the flight had landed.
The flight was once again very full but my row (7) remained empty. I was already anticipating stretching my legs when a family of 5 arrived late and settled in around me. After some negotiation I could convince to sit in such a manner that they all sat together and I had 7E/F to myself. No window on this row, but I still managed some shots.
Having heard the stories I was now much more aware of the sound of potholes whilst accelerating along the runway. No problems however.
We made a quick turn back to the West and I had a nice view of the island.
Once again a very good meal was served very quickly and they made several drink rounds. All in all the crew on both flights was great.
This is the last pic I managed before my battery died.
The flight went smoothly and I was back in my beloved Bali about 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Once again VOA and customs was a breeze. It took maybe 15 minutes. I headed of to my hotel to finalize my end reports and I flew back to NL about 5 days later.
Merpati made a very positive impression and I would not hesitate to fly them again. For national flights I would not be so sure though. Their international planes are much safer, or so I have been told. Timor-Leste made an incredible impression however. I really want to go back. If you ever get the chance: do it! Plenty of opportunity there as well.
I hope you enjoyed reading this report and feedback is always appreciated.
[Edited 2010-10-09 16:46:47]